Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Trouble in Tennessee

Giant wall of text from the Americans United website, 1/13/2011 go!

A Tennessee county’s preference for Christianity in its courthouse displays violates the U.S. Constitution, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, is challenging the Johnson County Commission’s decision to display the Ten Commandments and Christian literature in the courthouse lobby while refusing to display a local man’s posters about the historic role of church-state separation in American law.

“The Johnson County Commission is promoting religion through its displays,” observes the complaint. “In addition, the Commission refuses to allow alternative points of view to be heard. This is a twofold violation of the First Amendment.”

AU’s legal complaint notes that in 2008, after county resident Ralph Stewart challenged the county’s display of the Ten Commandments, the Johnson County Commission adopted a policy which created a public forum for displays on the walls of the county courthouse lobby. Displays are allowed so long as they directly relate to the development of the history or heritage of the law.

After the adoption of the new policy, the Commission unanimously approved a display sponsored by the Rotary Club of Mountain City and the Ten Commandments Warriors that features the Ten Commandments alongside excerpts from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the nation’s founders.

The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles.

The Commission, however, rejected two posters proposed by Stewart that explain the legal heritage of churchstate separation and refute the notion that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. His posters featured quotes from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and the nation’s founders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

In rejecting Stewart’s display, the Johnson County Commission insisted that it does not fall within the subject matter of the public forum its policy creates – even though Stewart’s material draws on many of the same historical sources as one of the Ten Commandments displays.

In a lawsuit filed on Stewart’s behalf with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Greeneville, Americans United contends that the Commission is engaging in impermissible contentbased and viewpointbased discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

The complaint also charges that the Commission’s actions were undertaken with a religious purpose, have a predominantly religious effect, endorse religion and prefer religion over nonreligion.

Look – the guy was willing to play the game.  He initially complained about an unconstitutional religious display and in response the commission went what seems like out of its way to make sure that future displays could be put up.  So, Stewart goes with the flow (something that a lot of religious people seem to wish atheists would do more often) and makes his own exhibit – one that uses a lot of the same sources and images as an already accepted, highly religious display but talks about church/state separation – and they reject it?

Admittedly I haven’t seen either display and the possibility exists that there is a good reason why the religious one was allowed and Stewart’s display wasn’t – but I can’t seem to find that reason.  Saying it doesn’t meet the requirements doesn’t make sense given the information above.  While looking for a visual of the displays themselves, I did find this:

The rejection came after the commission sought the advice of the Alliance Defense Fund, a law firm dedicated to Christian advocacy.

And that NEVER bodes well.

It seems displaying Stewart’s poster is the fair thing to do.  After all, the commission opened this avenue of expression by enacting the public spaces rule for the courthouse in the first place.

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